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Ann Wolfe and James Kirkland: The Next Chapter Begins

(Photo © Eric Doggett)
(Photo © Eric Doggett)

There are few people in the sport of boxing easier to root for than former fighter-turned-trainer Ann Wolfe. Once a homeless mother of two searching for shelter for her and her two children inside an Austin emergency room, Wolfe happened upon a televised female match playing on the lobby television. When she found out that the women on television got paid to fight, that was all Ann needed to know, thus beginning her journey toward boxing immortality. Wolfe went on to become the only fighter, male or female, to win and defend four titles in four weight classes simultaneously and boasts one of the best knockouts of all time against Vonda Ward, who Wolfe iced in just one round to win the IBA and WIBA international light heavyweight title. Retired since 2006 with a record 24-1 with 16 KOs (her only loss to Valerie Mahfood in 2000 was avenged in 2003), Wolfe now makes her living as a full-time trainer in her gym, Ann Wolfe Boxing and Fitness, which she started with the help of her former manager Brian Pardo. It is here, with the help of her first and only trainer, Pops Billingsley, that Wolfe built a growing squad of tough, young fighters known as the Wolfe Pack. The hallmark of her success has been an iron will, a work ethic even the most seasoned of champions would envy, and the lessons she learned in the hard life she used the ring to escape from.

Among the many kids she trains, including her daughter, Jennifer Fenn, there is one who stood out over the years, junior middleweight contender James Kirkland. For years, Wolfe and Kirkland were seen by many as a future trainer/fighter combo to be reckoned with. Kirkland was the first Wolfe protégé to move up the ranks to become a TV fighter, having fought on Showtime and HBO a number of times. Having trained with Wolfe since the time he was nine years old and getting paid five dollars a round to spar, Kirkland seemed the perfect fighter for Wolfe to make a statement with on the big stage. Like Wolfe, this young man has lived an up-and-down life that has seen him behind bars twice and under the brightest of lights boxing has to offer. Cut from the same cloth, they seemed destined for big things.


However, life took a wrong turn when Kirkland, already on parole for an armed robbery conviction back in 2003, was arrested in April 2009 for possession of a firearm and sent back to prison on the eve of a tune-up fight prior to a title shot. Having reached the precipice of possible greatness, everything came crashing down and Kirkland would remain in prison until September of 2010.


Kirkland had already had his career interrupted once from November 2003 to April 2006 for that first conviction. It had taken six fights to shake the rust and get him ready for TV fights. Eight fights later, Kirkland was as sharp as he was going to be and on the verge of a title shot. When he was released in September, many assumed Kirkland would return to Wolfe’s Gym in Austin to resume his career. That did not happen.


While he was in prison, Wolfe and Kirkland had a falling out of sorts. To date, neither have spoken about it. Kirkland, who is promoted by Golden Boy Promotions and co-managed by Michael Miller and Cameron Dunkin, decided to move to Las Vegas and employ the services of veteran trainer Kenny Adams. While Kirkland would never badmouth Wolfe, instead of praising her as a trainer, he decided to go his own way.


With a vigorous schedule of three fights in five weeks, Kirkland quickly got back to his winning ways, stopping his first opponent, Ahsandi Gibbs in 34 seconds and his next opponent, Jhon Berrio, just two weeks later, in two rounds. But something wasn’t right. Kirkland was fighting ten pounds above his previous weight, looked soft around the middle and was a step slow. He was rocked badly in the first round of his second return match by a right hand, though at the time, seemed merely a bump in the road. There were whispers that he and Adams were not seeing eye-to-eye and Kirkland himself told me he was not being pushed hard enough.


Still, the warning signs were ignored and in April of this year, Kirkland was set to face unheralded junior middleweight Nobu Ishida, a fighter with seven knockouts and six losses on his ledger, at a weight of 158 pounds. By the way he had taken out his first two comeback opponents, everyone just assumed Kirkland was back and he would steamroll this poor, unknown Japanese guy. Talks of a future showdown with the middleweight champ Sergio Martinez flooded Twitter and message boards. Everyone thought the James Kirkland of old was back. Everyone was wrong as hell.


In one round, Kirkland was dropped three times, forcing referee Joe Cortez to stop the fight just 1:52 into the first. Kirkland barely landed a punch. In less than two minutes, the long awaited comeback of James Kirkland was over and an uncertain future was beginning.


Soon after the fight, this reporter learned Kirkland had barely sparred 25 rounds for all three fights, was already looking for a new trainer, and worst of all, had been blowing up in weight before the fights, losing as many as 22 pounds the week of the Ishida fight. Once known as a Spartan fighter who trained unlike any other in the sport under Wolfe, Kirkland was now just any other fighter. A once-feared warrior now reduced to a “what could have been.”


After the fight, Kirkland returned home to see his family and when he returned to Las Vegas, he told Dunkin he wanted to fight on. All he needed was a new trainer. Wolfe was suggested but Kirkland, who had not spoken to her since the second month of his incarceration, balked. However, after a week of solitude, contemplating his future, Kirkland called up his Miller and told him he would work things out with Wolfe. She had taken him to 25-0 with 22 knockouts. Doing it his way added two knockout wins and one first round knockout loss. It was time to get back to what brought Kirkland to the dance in the first place.


“Mike [Miller] called me and told me that James wanted to talk to me,” Wolfe told me and David Duenez on last week’s radio show. “James asked me if I wanted to go back to him and train and I told him I never left him. A lot of people don’t know that all the kids I train in my gym, 15-20 kids are inner-city kids. They go to prison; they come back. The gym is always open. So James knew he could always come back. Probably, he needed to go deal with his problems and he could always come back to the gym because the gym is not…James has boxed here for years and years and years. It is not just a boxing relationship. In our gym, everyone is closer than that. When he came back, it fell back into place almost like he never left.”


Many people have asked me why they split and, honestly, as much as I have covered these two over the years, I only asked James once. He declined to tell me and I left it at that. What is between them stays that way. Wolfe said she harbors no ill will about his time with another trainer.


“[I was asked] if he said he was sorry,” said Wolfe. “I said, ‘No.’ They asked, ‘Should he have?’ I said, ‘No.’ because why would he have to go through all that? He has enough to respect to come back when he was ready and I have enough respect to say, ‘When you ready, then you come back and everything is going to go back right back to the way it was.”


I asked Wolfe if she saw his last three fights and whether or not she felt he lost anything in prison. What Ann saw was not a fighter who had lost something but one who had not worked hard enough to regain his previous form.


“When people say he lost something in prison, you can tell they didn’t do their homework on James Kirkland,” said Wolfe. “It means they don’t know him really well. James went to prison before and came back even hotter than when he left. This was less than three years so it wasn’t about what he lost in prison. It’s about ‘You have to be in condition; you have to be ready; you have to train.’ In order to be a killer, you have to train to kill. A lot of people think boxing is playing. Somebody is trying to hit you in the head, the face. They want to go home and say they won just like you want to go home and say you won. So what are you going to do in order to go above and beyond what they are doing in order for you to become better than them? They want to do the same thing you doing. So when I saw him, I’m not saying he lost something in prison because now that he is back, he didn’t. I’m not saying [Adams] didn’t train him because I wasn’t there. I’m just saying when you come to my gym, until you throw up or act like you passing out and until you take a whole bunch of ass-whoopin’s, enough to make you realize that this is for real, then I know you are ready.”


To anyone watching Ishida-Kirkland, the outcome was shocking. No one gave the Japanese fighter a chance. Yet there he was, handing Kirkland the first loss of his career and looking like Mike Tyson doing it.


“I would have been shocked at [James] losing to anybody,” said Wolfe. “Everyone said that ‘Well, Ishida didn’t have this or Ishida didn’t have that.’ Ishida was a man like James Kirkland is a man. Ishida wanted to win like James Kirkland wanted to win. Ishida beat James Kirkland point blank. By whatever means, he beat him by, he still beat him. He won. Point blank. What can you take from him? He got to go home and say, ‘I won.’ Why should I take anything away from him?”


Wolfe is known for her extreme training measures. Whether it is making her fighters spar two men at the same time, her middleweights sparring heavyweights or running in the 100+ degree Texas heat for miles without end, Wolfe looks for the weaknesses in her fighters and then trains it out of them. To her, it is not about doing just a little bit extra to get ready. It is about doing all that is necessary to guarantee victory.


“When you train, if you have a 99% chance of winning, I don’t train for that 99 percent chance. I train for that one percent,” said Wolfe. “People say, ‘Why do you train for that one percent?’ I say, ‘My mother died when she was 44. I think there is a one percent chance that a 44-year-old woman would die and leave six kids behind, so I always train for what that one percent is. And I don’t think that is what James did. I think he trained for that 99 percent and figured I’m good with that. So now that you come back to the gym, you need to train for that one percent. To Hell with that 99 percent; you are going to win.”


So how has it been since Kirkland has been back?


“He fell right back into what we do,” said Wolfe. “When we get ready to spar, we’re not sparring like ‘Oh, good job. Slow.’ We’re sparring like ‘Knock him out. Keep punching him until he falls on the floor and gets in the fetal position or until he quits.’ So I line guys up and I make him fight or I let them fight him. I tell them to beat the hell out of him and don’t stop. Just keep beating him and if he can’t take it, if he can’t take it in the ring, then he’s not ready to fight.”


Wolfe admitted it took Kirkland a little bit of time to get back into Wolfe Pack shape, however.


“The first week he was back, he was shell-shocked,” she said. “He was like in a different place but after that first week, I bet he has cracked about four people’s ribs within the last ten days. He is cracking ribs; he is knocking people out with 16-ounce gloves on. His timing’s coming back because there is only way to train in my place. Either you are going to whoop some ass or you are going to get your ass whooped. That is the only way I know how to train. I’m not going to baby you and go ‘Oh, let him do.’ No. Point blank, no. Either you gotta bring it or go home. Either he was going to bring it or go home. He is still there. We do everything to the extreme.”


Wolfe said that she felt he was not rushed back with his recent fight schedule.


“No. It was perfect,” she said. “James is the kind of fighter that the more he fights, the better he is. Now if you are not in condition or mentally focused, not mentally prepared…that is why I like old-school boxing. They wonder why [fighters of yesteryear] could fight that many fights. They could fight two or three times a week. They were used to it. When we train, we spar every day. James, when he first come back, tried to spar every day and his whole body was sore. He couldn’t hardly move. We spar four or five times a week. The reason we do it over and over and over until our bodies, our muscular structure, everything get immune and used to sparring five times a week. You never get tired and you never overtrain. You overtrain when you undertrain. When they say, ‘You overtrained; you left it in the gym,’ it’s because you are not used to training. My mama used to put me in the sun and work 12 hours. I was used to working 12 hours. It didn’t phase me. Whatever I had to do, I was used to it. James Kirkland’s body and muscular structure is made to fight a lot. When I first got him, he was 12 years old and he sparred 12 rounds every day. I thought that was the norm to spar 12 rounds every day, hit the bag ten rounds, jump rope for an hour. You are in the gym for three hours. You get up in the morning; everyone else run five miles. I tell James, ‘Why don’t you carry that bag for five miles? Because that is going to set you aside from Ishida.’”


The question arose as to whether it’s important for Kirkland to rematch Ishida.


“It could be; it could be not,” said Wolfe. “If Ishida keep fighting and wins his next couple of fights, that means he got something. So James is going to show he is capable of beating this man. Now, if Ishida go and lose his next three or four fights, then no. What would it pay? Like people saying should [Victor] Ortiz go and fight [Marcos] Maidana again? No. He went and fought something bigger but if Ishida continues to win, I think [James] needs to rematch him. But if Ishida keeps winning, then he deserves to fight [Kirkland] again because he has done what no other man has done and he deserves the chance to say, ‘This was not a fluke. I whooped James Kirkland’s ass and I can do it again.’ But the difference is going to be this time, Ann Wolfe is going to be in the corner.”


Under Adams, who is 70 years old, Kirkland experienced a trainer who had all the tools to teach but not the physical energy to keep up with him. Wolfe explained why she, at 40, is different.


“The difference is I’m going to get in the heat with him and say, ‘The first one that leaves is a punk,’” she explained. Few trainers can keep up with their fighters physically. Even retired, Wolfe is a physical specimen along with being an imposing presence. There is a huge mental difference when a fighter sees she is physically challenging them by doing what she asks them to do.


Wolfe explained that now, after a solid training camp, just a few days away from returning to the ring on Friday at the Dr. Pepper Arena in Frisco, TX, against perennial opponent Dennis Sharpe, Kirkland is ready as he ever will be. At first, there were a few doubts.


“He is so sharp. He is handling these guys,” Wolfe said. “Every time I would say, “I’m going to get somebody tougher, somebody bigger, he is putting people to sleep with 16 ounces. And you know me, if he was not ready, I would say, ‘Nuh-uh. He still missing something.’ Because after the first week, I thought ‘Something is missing out of him,’ but after I kept on pressing him and pressing him and beating him and just dogging him, I was going, ‘Either it is still the same James Kirkland in there we’re going to see or he is just a shell of himself and we don’t even need to waste our time.’ And it is still the same James Kirkland in there.”


At his peak, Kirkland was compared to Mike Tyson for the way he instilled fear in other fighters. Now that he has lost, that cloak of invincibility is gone and with that loss comes a new challenge of having to reestablish himself as a force to be reckoned with. That is just the way Wolfe likes it.


“I’m laughing and you know why?” asked Wolfe. “Half of the sparring partners they came and were like ‘Yeah, we’ll come,’ and they got knocked out. One dude came and in one round, got knocked smooth out. Another dude came and got knocked out. They were like “I thought that was that dude we was going to see on TV. So in Texas, guess what? The fear factor is back in Texas. Why? Because they were like ‘Who is the hell is that? That’s not the guy we saw on TV.’ I said, ‘You didn’t see me on TV. I’m glad they not scared. That’s just gives me something I didn’t have at first. Now I can tell James I am so glad that nobody is scared of him. I am so happy. Guess what? We can take advantage that they going to come. I tell you what. I’m not saying that he is going to do this, this, and this but if James keeps going at the pace he is going in this training camp, the fear factor will be back very soon.


“The first week-and-a-half, he was getting his ass beat,” continued Wolfe. “He was literally getting beat. But now? He is knocking people out. Usually when someone loses like that, it does something to their confidence. It’s like an egg been cracked and you can’t put it back together again but not from what I am seeing. Because today, I had to literally jump in the ring and go ‘No, no, no, no, no, no.’ And the first week I wasn’t having to do that. The second week, I wasn’t having to get in the ring and say, ‘No, no, no, don’t knock him out.’”

Time will tell what will become of the reunion of James Kirkland and Ann Wolfe but with her back in his corner, the work ethic and conditioning that made Kirkland a dangerous rising star is back. And with it comes a confidence he has lacked since his return. Will it be enough? Friday night on Telefutura will be the first attempt at answering that question.  


You can email Gabriel at, follow him on Twitter at and catch him on each Monday’s episode of “The Next Round” with Steve Kim. You can also tune in to hear him and co-host David Duenez live on the BlogTalk radio show, Thursdays at 5-8 PM PST. Gabriel is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

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